Violent attacks on universities are not incomprehensible events but part of a widespread pattern of attacks worldwide that has reached crisis levels. Scholars at Risk’s report, “Free to Think,” released in June 2015, documented 333 attacks involving violent or coercive force against higher education institutions and their members in 65 countries. These are only the tip of the iceberg, as we know most attacks go unreported.
At heart, these attacks represent a breakdown in our ability to tolerate opposing views.
Why attack universities? Partly because they tend to be soft, high-visibility targets – open by outlook, and porous by nature — where groups gather on predictable schedules. But more importantly it is because universities are home to diverse voices and points of view.
Higher education is where the future of society is formed, where — at least in the ideal — people from different backgrounds come together to share not just learning and facts but also individual and collective points of view and ways of engaging with the world. Where we learn, in the words of a colleague and former Palestinian university president, to “leave our guns at the door” and win arguments instead through evidence, reason and persuasion.
Universities are attacked because there are those who prefer the persuasive certainty of force to the unpredictability of reasoned argument, who prefer the dominance of a single point of view to a forum hosting many voices, whether in Pakistan’s northwest or closer to home. Earlier last week, over 1,000 university staff members in Turkey were placed under criminal investigation, threatened with being fired or imprisoned merely for signing a statement questioning the government’s “anti-terror” tactics against their fellow Turkish nationals. Hundreds of Egyptian students and scholars remain in prison, some with life sentences, merely for questioning the military overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president. Scholars and students from Iran to Venezuela, Russia to Thailand face prosecution for what they speak, publish and teach.
While threats in the United States and in other “safe” countries are not of the same kind or magnitude, at their root is the same refusal to engage with ideas that contradict one’s preexisting views. When the anonymous tweeter threatens to kill African American students who dare show up for class, what is really being said is, “I refuse to accept your voice in society.” When a gun enthusiast insists on bringing a handgun into the classroom as a right, no matter its effect on the class; when a university “disinvites” a speaker in the face of public outcry over his or her views; when trustees, donors, elected officials and pundits deride scholars and threaten to have them fired because they don’t like the content of research, what is really being said is: “I don’t want to hear views I disagree with.” This like-it-or-not attitude, this refusal to leave even our metaphorical guns at the door (let alone our real ones) threatens meaningful discourse on our campuses, as its more violent counterpart threatens the lives of our colleagues in Pakistan, Kenya and beyond.
Recognizing this crisis and that ultimate responsibility for security begins with nation-states, in 2014 Scholars at Risk and its partners in the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack brought together leading higher education organizations from around the world to articulate a set of four basic Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack, including obligations of countries to: abstain from direct or complicit involvement in attacks; protect higher education against present and future attacks; assist victims; and investigate and hold perpetrators accountable. Everyone appalled by the attack on Bacha Khan University can honor the victims by demanding that governments and the higher education sector publicly endorse these principles and take urgent steps to implement them.
But we can’t stop there, because the security of our universities and the ideas they generate can’t depend only on nation-states. It requires everyone — inside the higher education sector and in society — to reflect on our own words and behaviors, to confront those who seek to control or shrink the space for free inquiry and expression, and to welcome those whose views may be excluded or otherwise different from our own, so long as they have the experience and evidence to back them up, and so long as they are willing to leave their guns at the door, too.
A Pakistani American colleague once said to me the war on terror is not only being fought on the battlefield, it is being fought in the classroom. She meant it literally, as the attack upon Bacha Khan University shows, but also figuratively, as in the battle for the minds of young people. If we have any hope of winning that war — or redressing climate change, endemic poverty, water scarcity, racism, hyper-partisanship, or any one of many urgent crises that threaten our security and well-being — we must demand greater physical security for our universities as well as respect for the principles of autonomy and academic freedom that are indispensable to their greatness and success.